Unpacking the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms“It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide” (話說天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分).

These lines open the epic historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Novels of Chinese literature. It is a book that offers incredibly (though perhaps not succinct) insight into the Chinese view of the world, especially history, as the above quote suggests.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written in the 1300s by Luo Guanzhong, who is also often attributed with Outlaws of the Marsh, another of the Four Great Novels.

Set in the 2nd and 3rd centuries in China, Romance of the Three Kingdoms chronicles the rough end of the dynasty. It follows the struggles and battles of warlords and nobles as they fought to maintain or gain power. Eventually, three main families come into play, and these become the Wu, Shu and Wei states, ushering in the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history.

Three Brothers - Image from Wikimedia Commons

Three Heroes of Three Kingdoms, by Sekkan Sakurai (1715–1790). Wikimedia Commons

The book is full of exciting plot – the epic battles, feudal intrigue and sweeping landscapes that defined this tumultuous period in the history of the Middle Kingdom. Luo Guanzhong drew from a number of sources to compile the story, including ancient Chinese myths and legends, as well as factual historical accounts.

As such, the novel offers both an air of mystique and intrigue as well as a true-to-life account of Chinese history. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is an essential read for anyone wanting to grasp the ancient culture that has informed the China of today.

There are a few things to understand about Romance of the Three Kingdoms. First of all, like any good epic story, it is huge – 120 chapters that cover an entire dynasty. It tells the stories of hundreds of characters, yet still manages to be very readable and not confusing.

Several scholars have conducted translations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, Moss Roberts’ unabridged translation is widely considered to be the best. This extensive version was completed in 1991 and offers not only the text of the book but also hundreds of pages of notes and commentary, as well as maps and illustrations that truly enhance the story and make the book easier to follow.

Because it is such a huge book, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is often published in several volumes. It is important to choose a good quality set of complete volumes, rather than picking up one book at a time or buying a flimsy copy. These books are widely collected and, once read, tend to be treasured by their owners and re-read time and again.

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